A Halo of Fire (Part 5)

Part One of A Halo of Fire by David Mura;
Part Two; Part Three; and Part Four.

 

REDWOODS (cont.)

 

III

 

From time to time she calls her father. Asks him how he is doing.

How are you? he asks. But it still sounds to her like, How do you think I’m doing?

She’s working as a waitress now. Up in Humboldt. The county of marijuana farmers. Land of the redwoods. Coffee houses with hot tubs. Herb and candle shops.

Perhaps she’ll enroll for a few classes at the university. Perhaps not.

She tells herself she cannot heal her father’s wounds. But she knows that’s a lie.

At night as she falls asleep, she sees her mother driving down a familiar road, an ordinary late-autumn day.

Her mother’s face in the windshield as if shot by a camera, as if it were all a movie, and she could rewind time, the way it did in that documentary she saw in science class, the weird electronic voice of the British scientist droning on about the nature of time, all symbolized in a teacup shattering on stone tiles and then reversing itself, the pieces coming back together, shard by shard, to their original wholeness.

Entropy, she learned, was the nature of nature. Things fall apart. The title of a book she read in her English class about Africa, the coming of the Europeans, the beginnings of colonization.

When her mother saw her reading that book, she nodded approvingly. “That might teach you something about who the real savages were. When I was in high school we read The Heart of Darkness. It was all from the point of view of the Europeans.” Then, just before she left the room. “You might take a look at the Unesco website on the slave trade. That’s a good place to start.”

Claire never finished the book. She wonders now if she had, would her mother still be alive? She has many thoughts like this. She tries to forget them. That is what the therapist once told her to do.

She thinks of the man her mother had the affair with, the picture she found in a book in her mother’s closet. Secrets. Things she wasn’t supposed to know. Things her mother thought she took with her.

She spends a lot of time walking in the redwood forests these days. She likes it there, the surreal size of the giant creatures, as if she were walking into another time. She doesn’t get lost anymore, she doesn’t need a guide.  She just likes walking, walking and walking.

As she does she thinks, too, of Bob. Another ghost. Another time.

 

There were more people at the memorial service than she’d expected. Customers of all ages from Skin Dreams, wearing Bob’s creations, studded with Bob’s metal, as if he himself had fashioned out a whole new chunk of subculture. Black leather, boots, collars. There were writers, performance artists. Even a couple from his fifteen years back in L.A. Also a gaggle of young kids, who made Claire feel as if she hadn’t been the only one Bob had taken in. The event was held in a huge nightclub, a place not designed to be lit in the day, so that, in the inadequate white fluorescent lights, everyone looked as if they were milling about after last call, the bouncers starting to shuffle the patrons out. In the black walled nightclub, the jungle of flowers on stage appeared out of place, a setting for a camp revue or skit. No coffin, just a small black box with his ashes, placed on a stand.  Painted on the box was the back of a hand with a middle finger pointing up. Claire had never seen Bob perform and part of her kept thinking he was going to pop out from the wings for his grand finale, a last show in front of all his friends and minions. Emperor Billy Bob, he once called himself, someone to rule over the last decadent dance. Of course, he added, I’m really just the costumer, someone backstage. Waiting for the barbarian. The real barbarian.

During the ceremonies a tall and thin gay man, with a scraggly goatee, in a T-shirt and jeans, read one of Bob’s poems. An ode to the Chinese railworkers, the explosions and tunnel collapses they endured, the years of pounding spikes and laying rails, shoveling and manning wheelbarrows, fighting the railway companies, how a whole host of them were sealed in a house set ablaze by rival white workers, the easiest way to get rid of the cheaper competition, proving how easily such lives could be snuffed. And then, somewhere in the poem, in a description of the spikes and color of the workers’ skin, the current alternated to Bob’s work, his skin, his LGD, in a link that was and wasn’t logical, except that the voice in the poem was still as enraged, still focused on the damages to the body, on the beauty of the body, on what could be written on the skin, on what others wrote on your skin, on what Bob inked on the skin of those he loved, all the while knowing his work would never be permanent, never be commensurate to the atrocities that came before, to the crimes that made it all possible. And that was what he could highlight, in a way that the Chinese railworkers could not, drawing beauty out of pain, designs of ink as a legacy to the past and a call to the future, his skin all the while turning sallower, jaundiced, leathery, wrinkling in on itself, swallowing itself, the way the tunnels and earth swallowed those Chinese workers and the history they created, their screams of pain and terror stuffed by dirt, which Bob could hear now, each day, and swore he would hear even after he was gone, his knowledge that the world was and will always be pain. Which tells us we’re alive. Which tells us we’re all dying, every single motherfuckin’ one of us.

Claire listened to the poem as if it had been written for her, though it hadn’t. She noticed a few Asians in the crowd and wondered if they felt the same way. She thought of the Flip writer and the reading across the Bay that Bob had brought her to. The young Chicano who had asked her to dance.

I should have danced with him, she thought. Why not?

After the reader finished, he looked up. He had on gold wire spectacles and his eyes were lost in the reflection from the fluorescent lights so that he seemed to have no eyes at all. A single wreath of thorns bluing his neck, his skin a slightly reddish tint, as if he’d just stayed out too long in the sun. Claire couldn’t tell if he was crying or just pausing, letting Bob’s words sink in.

Amid the scent of the joss sticks burning on stage, she caught another odor. Someone had lit up a joint behind her. She wanted to turn and ask for a hit, but some entrenched sense of manners prevented her. Or perhaps it was just Bob, still watching out for her.

The next speaker, a young man with a Mohawk, dressed in black leather pants and jacket, with a spiked dog collar, told the story of one of Bob’s performances. How it took place in this roughneck bar in Oakland.

—Really, the man was a whore, the speaker said. He’d perform anywhere.

It was one of those bars where wire mesh protected the stage. Bob liked the way it made him look as if he were an animal in some zoo, there for the gawkers. Bob read a few poems, maybe even the one about the Chinese rail workers.  Told this kinky tale about piercing David Carradine’s nipples and then going to a party in the Hollywood hills. At some point a group of bikers came in, shouting and jostling and ordering drinks, a couple of them hooting insults to Bob, and Bob began taunting them back, challenging their manhood, daring them to come up and sit in the front row before the stage. One of them threw a beer bottle, which bounced against the wire mesh, and this just spurred Bob on. Somehow, he got all these bikers to actually sit in the front row of the stage, all the while they were drinking and hollering and Bob bantering back at them. And then Bob began his rant about how he hated his body, how his body had kept him in prison for so many years, how his body had punished and tortured him day and night, year after year, how his body was simply this alien planet he’d been forced to live on, how it was his warden, his dictator, his totalitarian state, his torturer, his executioner. How the time had come for the prisoner to revolt, for the revolution to be televised, for people to come to their senses. And then he seated himself on this wooden bench, dropped trou, and sans underwear revealed his cock and balls, grabbed a spike and a hammer, and nailed the spike into one of his balls, screaming, I am the Christ, the damnation of the body, and the resurrection of the soul eternal.

A couple of the bikers in the front row leaned over and retched. One fainted.

—And that, said the speaker, that, to me, was quintessential Bob.

 

Claire went back to Humboldt the next day.

She worked for a while at a coffee shop with hot tubs out on the back porch. She lived in a small room over the shop. It was only natural that she be the one who closed up. At night, after everyone was gone, she sometimes got in one of the tubs, lit up a joint, and looked up at the stars, more visible with all the lights now turned off. She liked the feeling of floating there, the heated waters bubbling about her, her body melting in the flow. Afterward she’d read in bed, fantasy, science fiction, Octavia’s Xenogenisis triology. Post nuclear apocalypse. The genetically altered children of Lilith. The third gender ooloi unifying with other genders, sharing and spreading genes, altering history.

She knew whom Lilith reminded her of; she was not blind to that.

One day a middle-aged Indian came into the shop. Gold wire glasses, a gap in his front teeth yet fairly handsome, like a diplomat. His suit was a bit too well cut for a professor or for the area, maybe even an Armani. He spoke with an accent that seemed more British than Indian, though she wasn’t an expert on either. With a familiarity that bothered her a bit he inquired about her ethnic background.

—Yes, he said, when she told him. I can see that. He ordered a double espresso. I picked up the habit in Italy. Have you been there?

Claire shook her head.

—I used to stop there sometimes on my way back to India. That was when I lived in Boston.

Claire handed him his espresso.

—Are you a student at the University?

Claire shook her head.

—Forgive me, but haven’t I seen you in my Botany lecture.

She felt embarrassed, as if she’d been caught lying. I’m not a real student. I mean, I’m not enrolled.

—No worry, he said. Please, come, whenever you want. I have so many other students who don’t want to be there, not to mention the ones that don’t come.

He left her a nice tip.

The next time he came in he asked her again about the class. He didn’t ask again. Finally he stopped coming to the shop.

She started working then at a health food restaurant. Better pay, better hours.

 

Last night her father called. She tried to keep it brief, like usual, but he kept prolonging it, talking about his classes, his new music project. Her cousin dropping out of UCLA. The refrigerator broke down, he had to get a new one. He even got her to talk about Butler’s Kindred, which he’d been reading.

Finally he blurted it out. I’m seeing someone, Claire.

She was surprised. It clearly bothered him more than it bothered her.

—Good for you, dad. Good for you.

The words were out before she could stop them.

When she was finally able to hang up, she took a shower, long and hot, the bathroom steaming like a jungle. After she finished, she brushed her teeth, and as she was doing so, she wiped the mist from the mirror. Her hair had long ago grown back to its old length. She felt a momentary urge to cut it again, like she had in Bob’s bathroom.

But the urge passed.

She went into her bedroom, slipped under the covers, then took out her journal and started to write. The entry had nothing to do with her father’s announcement. It was simply about a young girl walking through the woods.

Any woods. Any time. Any planet.

 

 

IV

 

She remembers when she first came to the area. Back before the coffee shop with the hot tub, the health store, Bob’s funeral. Back when she was still living with Bob.

It was late summer, the breeze blowing in the hint of a cold front. Near the start of the forest she walked up this hill and scanned the patch of open prairie below, so unlike the South Bay suburbia near where she’d grown up. A gang of elk at the far edge, so far away she could barely make out their individual shapes much less their antlers. A creek etched through the valley, snaking down toward the sea somewhere beyond the next line of trees. The sky painted gray and thick, with wisps of fog.

She turned back to the forest of redwoods, looming over her. The great trunks rose like endless columns, remnants of some ancient temple. She walked down the road into trees.

As she edged in, the air grew quiet and dark, no wind or birdcalls, a blanketing silence. She was moving downhill now, into the valley, and she felt like she was not just alone but the first person to ever enter these woods. Of course she wasn’t, and she knew Bob was back down the road, waiting in his car. He said he had had enough nature for the day, you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all, they’re just fucking trees. He couldn’t understand why she had insisted on coming north, but she had said if he wasn’t going to take her down to L.A., this was the least he could do. She needed to walk somewhere, to go a long way without seeing someone else or having to speak. Somehow Bob sensed this and relented, though he kvetched all the way up. She was happy to leave him behind in the car with his copy of Isherwood’s biography.

She pushed her way around clumps of sword ferns that came up to her chin. She placed her hand on one of the trunks. The skin there was fibrous and furrowed. Here and there fallen branches and even huge trunks lay about the main columns, as if some great avalanche of lumber had tumbled out of the sky. The needles were flat and the cones surprisingly small, the size of gumballs. The air felt damp and smelled a little like lemon, rising in a mist out of the ground.

Each redwood felt otherworldly, a creature landed from another dimension, the trunks wide as a mobile home, and they soared up in the air for two hundred and fifty feet before the first great branches started to sprout out, forming the great canopy above her and the primeval darkness below in which she walked now. She couldn’t see to the very top.  Her biology teacher on a field trip said they could reach over three hundred and fifty feet. She remembered that they could grow from a seedling to a hundred feet in a year. That there were redwoods in this forest that came of age before Christ was born, rising up in the great era of Athens and the building of the Parthenon.

 

As she walked in further around the ferns, she felt she could sense the giant hulks breathing around her. She passed some that possessed black spots on the trunks, charred remnants of forest fires, which they had outlived, waiting out the flames and growing again from the scars and burnt out hollows, irrepressible, nearly immortal. The branches overhead seemed limitless and thick, a ceiling of limbs and needles and growth after growth flaring outward, new trunks shooting up from the main trunk in a parallel motion reaching for the sky and then branches shooting out from those, ever upward. She looked toward the forest floor ahead at more fallen branches and bracken from the great trunks.

Other than the sword ferns and the small emerald plants growing out of the duff and mulch of the fallen redwood remnants, nothing much else could grow there, certainly no other trees. The giant redwoods ruled the terrain like triumphant pillagers, sucking out all the light, all the water, all the nutrients from the soil, their armies of limbs crashing down on anything that had the temerity to seek a small plot of space. They were beautiful yes, but malevolent and virulent too, dominating the terrain, almost human in their oblivious ferocity.

She began to worry about getting lost, she told herself she had been walking in only one direction. It was hard to find the sun with the canopy and the clouds, yet somehow she felt she could sense it moving into late afternoon and the direction of the sea. She told herself she would be all right, she would just go a little farther and then turn back.

She came to a small creek. A little to her left a redwood trunk formed a bridge across it. She looked at the other side. The trunk there was a wall of bark, larger than any others around it. She would just cross the creek and touch it and then go back. The bark of the log spanning the creek was wet and slippery and she had to tip-toe delicately across it, scrambling forward at the end, as if it were going to collapse behind her. She leapt from it and twisted her ankle a bit and cursed. Fuck, that was all she needed.

She approached the tree as if it were a sentient being, some entity she had to negotiate with, not an enemy necessarily but not friendly either. An alien presence. Massive and mute and marshalling its power hundreds of feet into the air above her, scaling back her presence to a negligible sum. She hesitated and then reached out her hand.

—Hey, dude, what the fuck are you doing here?

She looked back and saw a man in overalls and a blue workshirt across the creek. He had a bow and arrow strapped around him and she wondered if he were some sort of hunter. The overalls seemed to be made of plastic or some synthetic material. He looked about thirty; his dark hair was beginning to thin a little at the top. His face contorted into a scowl and he shouted across the creek.

—I said, what the fuck are you doing here?

—It’s a free country. A public park.

—This place isn’t for tourists.

—I didn’t see any signs.

—You need to get out of here.

—Who are you? Are you a warden? You don’t have a badge.

—I don’t need no stinkin’ badge. And it’s none of your business who I am. You’re not supposed to be here. Who told you about this place?

—No one. I just wandered here.

—Oh sure, you just wandered here. Who told you about this? How did you find out?

—Listen, I don’t know who you are and I don’t have to answer your questions.

—Fuck this. I’m coming over.

He started toward the redwood log over the creek.

—Stop right there, asshole. I’ve got a gun.

—A gun? Come on.

He leapt onto the log and began crossing. Why had she said that?

—Okay I don’t have a gun. But I want you to stop.

—You’re the one that should stop violating this space.

—Do you own this space? Who the fuck are you?

She began to wonder if he might be crazy, some messed up vet holed up in the woods. But he looked too young to be a vet. But then there was the bow he was carrying.

—And who the fuck told you about this tree?

—This tree? No one told me about this tree, I swear. I just came upon it.

He was at the end of the log now. He scampered off it and came up to her.

—Where’s your gear?

—I don’t have any gear. What kind of gear?

—Climbing gear.

His face suddenly softened.

—Shit, you’re just a kid, a girl.

—What the fuck is that supposed to mean?

—Mouthy too.

—Girls can’t climb trees?

—Sure they can. My girlfriend’s an expert.

He looked at her.

—You don’t have to be scared anymore.

—I wasn’t.

—You’re not a very good liar.

—That’s because I don’t lie.

She began to walk past him. She figured the quicker she could get away from him the better. He grabbed her.

—Let go of me.

—I will, I will. Only you have to promise me you won’t tell anybody about this tree.

—Okay, okay, I won’t tell anyone about your little tree. Not that I see your name on it. Maybe you ought to carve your name on it. Me & tree, so everyone would know she’s yours.

She moved to go but he still held her.

—You have to swear.

—What do you want me to do? Take a boy scout’s oath? I won’t tell anybody. Shit, I’m already afraid I won’t be able to make my way back out.

—I could take you back out if you promise.

She jerked her arm back from him but his grip held.

—I don’t need your help. Let me go, you’re scaring me.

He let her go.

—Anyway, what’s so special about this fucking tree?

It was as if he couldn’t help but smile.

—It’s probably the oldest tree in this forest. Maybe in all of northern California. Which means it might be the oldest sequoia sempervirens in the whole world.

 

He was a professor at a nearby state university but really just another cowboy.  Oh he had the proper credentials, the first scientist to explore the old-growth redwood canopy, the great mass of foliage far above the forest floor, but it was the physical tasks of his research that propelled him. He’d perfected certain climbing techniques that enabled him to haul himself up into that space, which previously had been deemed inaccessible, a world no one had ever seen before. Others had thought it was probably a desert up there, just the redwood branches thinning toward the top, but what he found was an entire and unique ecosystem, a whole forest of lichen and ferns and plants and berry bushes and even trees growing in the mulch of the dead or decaying portions of the redwood, a rich canopy soil that supported an astonishing variety of plant and animal life.

—In some places the soil up there’s three feet deep.

He said he’d questioned her because this was, obviously, a unique tree. Only about twenty people in the world knew about it. But if word of its location got out, a whole horde of amateur climbers would descend upon it, just to say they had mounted it. And of course that would be absolutely disastrous for the tree.

—So you keep it as your own preserve then? No one gets to climb it but you?

He explained that first of all, he was an expert climber and knew how to access the upper canopy without damaging it. And secondly, he wasn’t just climbing it for the asinine glory of telling other people he’d done it, like those rich and stupid millionaires who tried to climb Everest. He was a scientist; he was cataloguing and investigating a world he had discovered, a world that very well might be rapidly vanishing. That might cease to exist sooner than we think.

He asked if she wanted him to help her find her way back out. She said she wanted to watch him climb. He said he if went up there he might be there for several hours. She thought of Bob and then her father and had the vague thought that they might get worried but then she remembered where she was. She said to him that if she couldn’t watch him climb she might end up telling someone about the tree.

He sighed.

—Dude, I’m glad I’m not your parent. You must be hell on them.

He took out a fishing line and tied it to the end of an arrow. Pulling back the bow, it looked like he was aiming directly at the sky. It took him a couple tries before the bow came back with the line caught on a large lower branch. He tied a black rope to the end of the line and hauled it over the branch. He then tied one end of the rope to a small nearby tree, the other end dangling from a branch more than two hundred feet in the air. A few moments later he began climbing up the trunk.

As she watched him monkey his way up, she reached out and touched the trunk on which he was climbing, almost as if she might feel his steps there. But she couldn’t, and soon he was a small dot, entering a world she would never see, a labyrinth of limbs swallowing the sky above her.

 

 

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Front page image by Jason Hollinger.

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